King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima of the Netherlands visited Frederik Meijer Gardens and the Medical Mile in Grand Rapids on June 2, marking the third time in history that Dutch royalty stepped foot in Michigan.
The occasion, which served as an opportunity for Michigan and the Netherlands to express gratitude for their strong economic ties and trade relations, and to continue this cooperation, also proved special in another way.
As part of the day’s festivities, the King and Queen were introduced to Diet Eman, a 95-year old resident of Grand Rapids, and a leading member of the Dutch Resistance in WWII. I had the great honor of accompanying Diet during the day’s events, which included a presentation of a ballet about her life, “It Is Well,” performed by Turning Pointe School of Dance.
At age 95, Diet possesses a unique amount of energy and grace, which is coupled with an equally unique history of courage and sacrifice. As a 20-year old bank teller living in the Netherlands during WWII, she and a group of ordinary Dutch citizens sought to protect Jews during the Nazi’s occupation of the country.
At the beginning of the war, Diet and her fiancé, Hein Sietsma, possessed an almost prophetic sense of the atrocities that would occur under Adolf Hitler’s reign. They had read his book, Mein Kampf and sensed that his messages of hate were not just hollow proclamations. Diet and Hein also had Jewish friends, and witnessed the early stages of Hitler’s plan to exterminate the Jews, his “final solution.”
They, along with fellow members of the Dutch Resistance, simply acted upon their convictions and faith, recognizing that as time went on the actions against the Jewish people were worsening, culminating in deportations to concentration camps and often death. Dutch Resistance activities included the highly intricate and dangerous work of finding and providing housing for Jews, fabricating identification cards, and stealing food ration cards from German government offices in the Netherlands, so Jews could obtain food.
In the midst of these efforts, Diet was arrested and sent to Vught concentration camp in the Netherlands. After a long period of questioning, she was remarkably pronounced innocent and was released. Undaunted, she continued resistance efforts until the Netherlands’ liberation from Nazi control in May 1945. Unfortunately, her fiancé, Hein, did not get to experience this joyous day; he was sent to Dachau concentration camp in Germany and killed for his involvement in the resistance.
For her tireless work to uphold the dignity of the person in the face of Nazi tyranny, Diet was recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem in 1998. She was also awarded a medal from Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands for her work in the resistance, which she proudly wore at this recent visit of King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima in Grand Rapids.
This year’s 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland and the end of WWII present a prime opportunity to reflect on the Holocaust, and those who bravely stood up against the Nazi regime to preserve life and uphold human dignity.
It is incredible for those of us in Grand Rapids to learn that we have one of these heroes in our own backyard. Diet continues to grace people locally and internationally with her example of service, poise, and humility. Being in her presence as she was recognized by the King and Queen for her courageous efforts, and seeing her joy was an incredible privilege.